Holding one hot handle of a carbon steel wok with a white kitchen towel, Devin Gong swirls seasoned oil around the the pan until it’s smoking. Gong has already explained the three-step process behind the water boiled beef at Astoria, the new Dupont Circle sibling to the popular CopyCat Co. on H Street NE, but to really convey the spectacle of the dish, he has to show how it’s made. Once the oil is ready, he pours a hefty ladle of it over a bowl of poached tri-tip slices and stir-fried vegetables. Heaps of garlic and chiles imported from the Sichuan capital of Chengdu bubble and crackle in the final, quick-frying step.
“Water boiled beef is one of the first dishes that when I saw how it’s made, it blew my mind,” Gong says.
The final product, a fiery bowl of beef in a crimson broth augmented by doubanjiang broad bean paste, represents the managing owner’s progress as a cook at Astoria, which opened about two weeks ago at 1521 17th Street NW, in between JR.’s and Agora.
A bar manager by trade, Gong first started cooking for customers when he opened CopyCat Co. five years ago. The Barmini alum couldn’t find anyone who wanted to prepare food until last call, so he took it upon himself to make dishes he liked to eat: dumplings, skewers, and bao.
When he was preparing to open Astoria, Gong knew he wanted the import the same emphasis on craft cocktails that has made CopyCat a hit while coming up with a Chinese food menu that would fuel full sit-down dinners and attract large groups that can make reservations (via email) for special events.
Gong realized most of his favorite Chinese dishes skewed Sichuan, so he decided the menu at Astoria should go in that direction. He had trouble finding chefs again, so he committed himself to studying the cuisine. The result of his research is a 12-item menu that includes Sichuan classics — mapo tofu, dan dan noodles, chile wontons, and sweet and sour baby back ribs — along with Americanized favorites and other riffs (walnut shrimp; the sober soup from CopyCat)
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Sweet & Sour Ribs Before dried chilies were introduced to the region 500 years ago, Sichuan cooking was known more for the sweet and sour balances found in this highly addictive late night snack. #sichuan #sichuanfood #sichuancuisine #pork #babybackribs #ribs #restaurant #cocktails #chinesefood #dupontcircle #washingtondc
Born in China and raised in New York City, Gong felt it was important to make this food so he could showcase his culture for his son, who’s not yet 2 years old.
“I’m very American,” Gong says. “I own a business, I listen to rock ‘n’ roll, and I didn’t have that much of a Chinese heritage to pass on. I think after having my son, I really wanted to do that for him. He should eat Chinese food.”
Last summer, Gong took a research trip to China, spending close to a month living out of a hotel room in Chengdu. He wandered around a massive spice market and asked questions about the dizzying array of chiles on display. He speaks Mandarin, but he struck out over and over again as he moved in between vendors and couriers who had little time for an American asking if he could buy one kilogram of chiles just try them out.
Eventually he found a friendly wholesaler willing to explain the differences in his selection. Using his cousin as an intermediary, Gong now gets chiles shipped from Sichuan that take about two weeks to arrive.
“The shipping cost is about twice as much as the actual chiles, but you can’t fake that,” he says.
The more Gong looked into Chinese cooking, the more he felt it was similar to bartending. In contrast to the European system, where different dishes are prepared at different stations and sometimes assembled at the end, the cook working the wok has everything within reach. Like a good bartender, the person at the wok station has to know their menu front to back and makes a little bit of everything.
Now Gong finds himself training other bartenders to cook Sichuan dishes. He insists the priorities of both jobs are the same: paying attention to temperature control, paying attention to the quality of ingredients, understanding the reasoning of using certain ingredients, and keeping mise en place in order.
“I’m like, ‘Yes, you can be both a bartender and a cook.’” Gong says. “There’s no reason why you can’t do that.”